Lived Experience Brings Human Rights Message Home at CSW

Maria de Bruyn

Personal stories of coerced sterilization and on the influence of religious tradition on sexual and reproductive health captured the audience at the UN Commission on the Status of Women.

At two NGO-organized sessions
during the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York this
week, it was people’s personal experiences and views about human-rights
violations that aroused strongest audience response. Sterilization without
women’s knowledge was highlighted by two speakers during the first
session entitled "Beyond denial and discomfort: securing the rights
and health of women and youth, including those who live with HIV."

Sheehama, a Namibian member of the International Community of Women
Living with HIV/AIDS (ICW), spoke first, relating how astounded she
was to discover that she had been sterilized when she sought contraceptives
at a public health clinic. When she needed a cesarean section six years
ago, she was asked to sign a form, which she assumed covered measures
needed if complications were to arise. She did not realize that the
form also said she was agreeing to sterilization, a term that she did
not even understand at that time. Sheehama emphasized that all women
living with HIV must have the right to decide for themselves whether
and when they want to have children. She also said that HIV-positive
people must be enabled to make those decisions by having access to condoms
for safer sex and family planning to postpone pregnancy until it is

Daliyanis of Vivo Positivo, a Chilean network of people living with
HIV, spoke on behalf of a young woman whose identity is being kept confidential.
She, too, was asked to sign a paper when she gave birth. Her scheduled
cesarean was pre-empted by early labor during a weekend and she was
attended by staff other than her regular physician. The next morning,
a nurse handed the young women her baby while mentioning that she would
not be having any more children as she had been sterilized the previous
night. Vivo Positivo brought a court case on her behalf, but did not
receive a favorable ruling in a lower or appeals court. The case has
now been brought before the Inter-American Commission with help from
the Center for Reproductive Rights. Daliyanis also emphasized the need
for people living with HIV to be able to make their own decisions about
sexuality and reproduction, without interference or restrictions imposed
by politicians or religious institutions such as the Catholic Church.

the discussion, two conservative listeners expressed their opinions,
one woman almost crying as she accused the speakers of practicing discrimination
when they opposed the Catholic Church for not supporting condom use.
A young man said that the speakers had presented one-sided viewpoints
because they did not recommend abstinence. Most audience members nevertheless
commented on the presented violations, some mentioning rights violations
in their own countries.

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experience and viewpoints further enlivened a discussion on "The influence
of religion on the human rights of women within the EU." A presentation
by Ewa Larsson of Sweden summarized research about women’s rights,
in which 23 of 27 European Union governments responded to a survey.
Twenty-two said that women in their nations are endowed with sexual
and reproductive rights.

the researchers found a tendency to "detach the female body" from
questions of rights. In many countries contraceptives are expensive,
only available with prescriptions or to women of certain ages, and certain
groups of women have no knowledge about available family-planning methods.
In 50% of EU countries, women are not free to make autonomous decisions
about abortion. In this sense, Larsson said, "the female body is still
a battlefield."

members who spoke out represented women of the Islamic, Catholic and
Protestant faiths. An Iranian discussant whose friend who was arrested
for a "clothing infraction" stated that, even though she is Muslim,
she believes that the State and religion must be separate to protect
women’s rights. A young woman from Saudi Arabia advocated for caution
in labeling violations of women’s rights as "religious" because
many such abuses are erroneously said to be supported by the Koran.
She was willing to speak out against honor killings, for example, but
felt that they must be characterized as abuse based on tradition rather
than Islamic practice.

young Catholic woman said that she felt advocating for access to contraception
and abortion meant condoning the right to take another person’s life.
A speaker from Kenya, on the other hand, lamented the difficulties her
organization has in advocacy for a reproductive health and rights bill
that is being branded as an "abortion bill." Other speakers related
that they believed in women’s choice while simultaneously remaining
practicing Catholics.

the expression of personal stories and viewpoints was quite useful,
highlighting the fact that many differences of opinion about women’s
rights are underpinned by religious beliefs or views about religion’s
place in society. If we are to build a stronger movement to support
women’s rights and address rights violations, such discussions should
continue and expand. A female Episcopal priest summed it up nicely;
some of her important points: "We who are in religion must transcend
religion and use it positively….We must partner with our sisters in
thinking outside the box, as many of our problems are man-made….We
must continue the open discussion and dialogue!"

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